Crosses continue to be desecrated in the Indian state of Goa, despite the police claiming to have captured the ‘culprit’, a 50-year-old Catholic who, from what police say, appears to be mentally ill.
Francis Pereira was arrested on 14 July, but the desecrations have continued, most recently on 27 July in Chimbel village and, two days before, at a Catholic cemetery in Mardol, where a dozen crosses were found strewn around and the gate to the cemetery broken.
“The latest cemetery and cross desecration speak for themselves,” Father Savio Fernandes, executive secretary of the Council for Social Justice and Peace (CSJP), told World Watch Monitor on 27 July. “This disproves the police claim that the series of cross desecrations and cemeteries has been the work of a single person. If the culprit has been arrested, how did this happen after his arrest?”
The tiny state of Goa, on India’s west coast, is a former Portuguese colony. A quarter of its 1.5 million people are Catholics, though the state is governed by the Hindu nationalist BJP.
Police said Pereira admitted to have single-handedly vandalised around 140 religious symbols in the past five years. He reportedly told police that he believed he was “freeing the trapped souls” and had been doing so since 2003.
“We have cracked the biggest and longest-running case of desecrations in the state with the arrest of Pereira,” Police Superintendent Arvind Gawas told reporters on 15 July. “With this, we will be able to solve over 150 cases of desecration of religious places, which were reported over the last 15 years.”
But Fr Fernandes said: “Our team has visited many of the desecration sites. In Curchorem Church Cemetery, more than 40 structures were damaged. It is unbelievable that one man could have done this huge destruction in such a short span of time.”
Earlier, after meeting the Director General of Goa’s police force, Father Fernandes said the police were “clueless” about what was happening. The arrest came a week later.
“Now their claim has been exposed,” said the priest, who said he is awaiting another meeting with top police officials. “We want a fair and impartial probe into these continuing desecrations.”
Previously, on 16 July, Fr Fernandes’ CSJP team* released a “fact-finding report”, which stated: “The team strongly feels that the arrest appears as a familiar script to similar crimes across the country to pacify the civil society and the affected communities and divert attention from the actual perpetrators.
“The extensive damage caused, as witnessed by the fact-finding team, could not have been possibly inflicted by a single person, moreover who is 50 years old. The fact-finding team demands an impartial investigation into the crimes.”
The report added that the “general perception of the community” was that the governing BJP has “encouraged such incidents”.
“Christians and Muslims are especially targets of demonisation through false propaganda,” the report said. “Muslims are portrayed as terrorists and loyal to Pakistan, while Christians are portrayed as being agents of Portugal, and anti-nationals, and seeking to convert members of other religious communities through fraud/inducement.
“The desecrations are carried out in a form of a campaign to strike fear, insecurity and mistrust among communities in Goa.
“The law and order machinery have failed to solve the cases and apprehend the culprits responsible for such crimes, thereby emboldening the perpetrators.
“All the attacks have been executed with heavy steel implements directed at the bases of the structures to cause maximum damage. The team sensed the pain and anguish, which was palpable in the shock and fear on the faces of the members of the community.”
The fact-finding team said it was unable to meet police officials due to time constraints but will do so prior to producing its final report.
The opposition Congress party has demanded that the investigation be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. However, Vijai Sardesai, leader of the Goa Forward Party, one of the alliance partners in the BJP-led government, said the local police were capable of investigating the cases.
*The members of the fact-finding team included Fr Savio Fernandes; Irfan Engineer, Director of Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS); Neha Dabhade, also with CSSS; and Ranjan Solomon and Roselle Solomon, prominent minority-rights activists associated with the CSJP.